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BWW Blog: WandaVision & An Acting Education Helped Me Accept My Autism. But Not in the Way You Might Think.

"How many times can we do the scene again?" I had never been so elated in my life.

BWW Blog: WandaVision & An Acting Education Helped Me Accept My Autism. But Not in the Way You Might Think.
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and
Paul Bettany as Vision
in Marvel Studios' WANDAVISION
exclusively on Disney+.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.
©Marvel Studios 2020.
All Rights Reserved.

I was seven years old when my mom insisted that I go to a three-week film acting camp at my local theater over the summer. She tried to convince me by saying that my childhood best friend was doing it too, and we could do it together. But I already had summer plans: play Pokémon Pearl again, watch every YouTube video on it, and memorize all the sounds that each Pokémon made. You know, standard seven-year-old stuff.

"I don't want to go." I said. I thought that a logical statement would suffice, but it didn't. Ironically, when my first attempt didn't work, I acted my heart out by throwing a fake temper tantrum. It was complete with crying, throwing myself on the floor, and thrashing my arms around, just like I had seen once before on TV.

I had given the performance of a lifetime, but it still wasn't enough, and I went. There, I met my first script: a three-line commercial for Jiffy Pop popcorn. Reading people was hard enough, but deciphering lines from a page and having no idea how I was supposed to act? It seemed insurmountable. I remember watching myself back on camera, my lazy eye drifting, and a vague look of confusion in my eyes. I hated it.

Even so, after the first day of camp concluded, I strode up to my mom's car, plopped myself in the back seat, and declared, "I'm going to be an actress." I'm sure I heard her stifle a laugh and say something like, "See, I told you that you'd love it."

I didn't love it. But, for some reason, whenever I set my mind to doing something, it overrides everything else. I was determined to find a way that I would enjoy acting; my path in life was to solve a seemingly impossible problem.

I started where an obviously-neurotypical person would: devoutly studying the people around me and the media I consumed. I watched, and I logged each facial expression along with the vocal intonation, body language, and words that come along with it. Each combination resided in a system in my brain for future use as a "script". I memorized thousands of these combinations throughout elementary, middle, and high school just by observing. Then, I used what I had learned throughout my daily life. It was incredibly exhausting to constantly think about every aspect of how you present yourself: face, voice, body language, in every moment of your life. It was not only what to do, but what not to do. Don't twist your hair. Don't shake your hands. Don't repeat phrases over and over. Even with constant "study", I slipped up many times. I missed social cues and felt like I was one step behind.

Fast forward to high school, and I landed my first lead role in a play. I was stuck on what my character meant by a line during a staging rehearsal. I asked my teacher, "I don't understand what my character means by this line. Can you explain it to me?". The cast audibly sighed, annoyed, and a few shook their heads. She replied shortly. "We don't have time for this." We did have time. Rehearsals were usually five hours, four days a week; way too long for a high school play. What she meant was, "I don't have time to explain to you what you should already know."

What a teacher says can stay with you for a lifetime, and she confirmed what I already knew: there was something wrong with me. I went home that day and bawled. However, her words only lit a fire under me to throw myself further into the "quest to enjoy acting"; as if what I was doing wasn't taxing enough already.

Money became tight after that first acting camp, and formal performance training was not an option. Other than the inconsistent class or a voice lesson here and there, my experience came partly from the public school system, partly from my "self-teaching." My drive to complete my "quest" landed me a spot in one of the country's most competitive voice and theatre programs.

Then pandemic hit, and I did my first year of college entirely online from home. One thing that constantly stood out to me was my friends' despair at being home, where I could never seem to relate. I loved being home. Home wasn't too loud, wasn't too bright, and I didn't have to "script" constantly. Something that I suspected became more evident with this love of being home. Was I autistic?

My brother is autistic, and I seemed to hit the mark on all the diagnosis criteria. A few months before my 20th birthday, a safe, socially-distanced evaluation confirmed I was right. I had done the test, assuming I would be wrong and sat there when the evaluator told me, astounded. I was nothing like the ingrained idea of autism that I knew from society and my brother.

"How do you know for sure?" I asked. The evaluator explained that what I called my "acting study" was actually called "masking", which is the intentional act of pretending to be neurotypical by studying others' behavior and mirroring it, thus masking your ASD traits. (The effects of long-term masking can be catastrophic.)

The more I thought about it, the more it added up. I enjoyed being home because I could be myself, something I felt I could never do in public. I could shake my hands, twist my hair, indulge in my special interests* (Pokémon and Marvel Studios). I had time to give myself the step-by-step instructions I needed to complete a task, all while happily repeating "Just a case of the Mondays, amirite?" over and over from WandaVision. Most of all, I didn't have to worry about misinterpreting what someone meant because that "script" wasn't logged in my "database" yet.

My first acting course in college was in-person, after my official autism diagnosis. The class was nine people, so small that there was no rush. Even while taking our time, we were always ahead of schedule. My classmates were happy to listen to me talk about WandaVision on our break. Wanda Maximoff, the main character, was just like me. She mirrored the behavior of other people to fit in and did cool things with her hands. I loved her.

Lee Summers, my Professor, was funny, kind, and knowledgeable about many acting methods. He always took the time to explain things as clearly as possible after I told him that I was autistic. However, even with his great efforts that I appreciated, I still was left not enjoying acting because I was often confused about what the words meant. I wondered if this was not the fault of one person but rather a system that didn't consider brains that process information differently.

The more I learned about autism, the more I wanted to help the autistic community, especially because there is so little autism representation in media and art. I wrote a lengthy paper that proposed that special interests are the key to directing neurodivergent actors. Autists are experts in their special interests, and using specific parts of their special interest as reference allows a clear understanding of what is being asked. The step-by-step process is already complete by recalling a topic where the knowledge is already possessed. I used WandaVision as an example and explained how my method would work.

I sent the essay to Professor Summers, thinking he would find it interesting as an academic of acting. I didn't know if he'd read it, and I didn't expect him to do anything with it. At this point, I hadn't fully accepted my autism diagnosis to be true, so I didn't connect the apparent dots: maybe my ideas could be helpful to me.

At the same time, we were working on a scene in class and ahead of schedule as usual. Against my better judgment, based on my experience with teachers, I said: "I don't understand what these lines mean. And why do I leave after I say them?"

From the front row of the audience, in the theater where our class took place, Professor Summers brought his hand to his chin for a moment in thought. I braced myself for what I thought was to come: "We didn't have enough time."

Instead, he said: "Where would Wanda go if she was angry?"

I stared at him, dumbfounded. Was he talking about... my Wanda?

"Yes, I do mean Wanda, from WandaVision." He continued.

The answer fell out of my mouth, and I didn't even have to think about it. "She'd go to a cabin in the woods."

He nodded as I offered more; he didn't even need to ask. "She's not just angry. She's sad. She's angry that she lost her family and sad that they're gone. She is also guilty. Because she didn't mean to hurt other people, but she did because she was grieving."

He smiled. "What your character is doing in this scene... it's just like that."

I was so excited that I had to stop myself from jumping up and down. "How many times can we do the scene again?" I had never been so elated in my life. I could have done it a thousand more times and not gotten tired of it, because I loved understanding, and I loved being just like Wanda.

At that moment, I realized that my twelve-year "quest to enjoy acting" had come to a close. In reality, it was never really a quest to enjoy acting. It was a quest to enjoy - and accept - myself, just like at the end of WandaVision, when Wanda welcomes that she is, in fact, the Scarlet Witch. She had had the power all along. She only realized her power when she stopped pretending to be something she was not. It may have been difficult to "drop the act", so to speak, but not impossible.

A great teacher helped me realize that. I don't need to be something I'm not - I'm wonderful as I am - and there is nothing wrong with me. And, if I was Wanda, and I was angry, it certainly wouldn't be because I went to Lee Summers' acting class.

* "Special interests are frequently developed by individuals with autism spectrum disorder, expressed as an intense focus on specific topics."

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